Heathen’s Greetings: The True Meaning of the Season

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Away with the manger —in with the Solstice!

For a fact, the Christians stole Christmas. We don’t mind sharing the season with them, but we don’t like their pretense that it is the birthday of Jesus. It is the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun — Dies Natalis Invicti Solis.

Christmas is a relic of sun worship.

For all of our major festivals, there were corresponding pagan festivals tied to natural events. We’ve been celebrating the Winter Solstice, this natural holiday, long before Christians crashed the party. For millennia, our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere have greeted this seasonal event with festivals of light, gift exchanges and seasonal gatherings.

The Winter Solstice is the reason for the season. The Winter Solstice, occurring on December 21 or 22, heralds the symbolic rebirth of the Sun, the lengthening of days and the natural New Year.

We nonbelievers are quite willing to celebrate the fun parts of anybody’s holidays. We just want to be spared the schmaltz, the superstition — and the state/church entanglements.

The customs of this time of year endure because they are pleasant customs. It’s fun to hear from distant family and friends, to gather, to feast, to sing. Gifts, as freethinker Robert Ingersoll once remarked, are evidences of friendship, of remembrance, of love.

The evergreens displayed now as in centuries past flourish when all else seems dead, and are symbols, as is the returning sun, of enduring life.

In celebrating the Winter Solstice, we celebrate reality.

What Is the Winter Solstice?

“Sol,” in Latin, means sun. Witnessed from the northern hemisphere at the time of the Winter Solstice, the sun appears to stop its southerly drift for a day or two, before it returns north. Hence the word “stice,” from the Latin for “stand still.” The Winter Solstice is the moment when the sun appears at its most extreme southernmost position from the Equator, creating the year’s longest night. The Summer Solstice six months later marks the longest day. The sun’s “migration” north to south relative to the Earth is caused by the rotation of the Earth on its tilted axis as it orbits the sun. (The vernal and autumnal equinoxes are the midpoints, when daylight and nighttime are equal.) Today the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is popularly known as “the first day of winter.”

The Winter Solstice took place on December 25 at the time the Julian calendar was adopted by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.E. The Julian calendar was off by 11 minutes per year. In 1582, by the time Pope Gregory established the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was out of sync by ten days. The pope’s remedy of deleting ten days from the calendar year 1582 established the solstice on December 22.

“Keep Saturn in Saturnalia”

Many of the Winter Solstice traditions coincide with agricultural seasons and harvest. The year’s end is a natural time to store harvests, rest from farm work, feast and party. The best-known Winter Solstice custom was the Roman festival of Saturnalia, taking place for a week. The celebrations featured role reversals for masters and slaves, feasts, drinking, bon-fires, family parties, and gift-giving, decorating with evergreens and candles. In 350, Pope Julius I named December 25 as the day to celebrate the nativity. Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

Notes James Frazier in The Golden Bough, “it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness.” Frazier conjectures that for the same motives, “the Church may have consciously adapted the new festival [of Easter] to its heathen predecessor for the sake of winning souls to Christ.”

Nothing in the New Testament refers to the nativity as occurring in wintertime. In fact, when “shepherds watched their flocks at night” was likely early spring or fall. Christmas (a word absent from the New Testament) is celebrated on December 25 because, as Frazier put it: “Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals.”

“It is obvious that the babe in the manger and the babe in the diaper with a New Year’s banner around his chest are really the same – a symbol of the reborn sun god,” wrote Lee Carter (“The Winter Solstice and the Origins of Christmas,” Fall 1985 Free Inquiry). “Some of the major gods who celebrated their birthdays on December 25 were Marduk, Osiris, Horus, Isis, Mithras, Saturn, Sol, Apollo, Serapis, and Huitzilopochli.”

Christmas trees aren’t Christian

What is now the ubiquitous American practice of placing a decorated tree in one’s home was popularized here and in England in the 19th century by Germans, such as Queen Victoria’s husband. But the roots of this custom, so to speak, were pagan. Besides Teutonic (German) peoples, Celts and Druids were among many ancient “heathens” who engaged in various forms of tree-worship. Evergreens were widely used as winter decorations by many in Northern Europe, including the Vikings. The Old Testament harshly warns of such idolatry: “Learn not the way of the heathen. . . Their customs are vain; for one cuts a tree out of the forest . . . they deck it with silver and with gold. . .” Jeremiah 10:2-5

The obvious pagan origins of Christmas revelry and customs were why the Puritans outlawed any observance of December 25 other than a church service.

Celebrating what is human

The 19th century’s most famous “infidel,” Robert Ingersoll, wrote “A Christmas Sermon,” published in the Evening Telegram, Dec. 19, 1891, noting: “The good part of Christmas is not always Christian — it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural. . . . .

“Long before Christ was born the Sun-God triumphed over the powers of Darkness. About the time that we call Christmas the days begin perceptibly to lengthen. Our barbarian ancestors were worshipers of the sun, and they celebrated his victory over the hosts of night. Such a festival was natural and beautiful. The most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun. Christianity adopted this festival. It borrowed from the Pagans the best it has.”

As Ingersoll said: “I am in favor of all the good free days — the more the better.”

© 2012 by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Freedom From Religion Foundation

Freedom From Religion Foundation